Before the next Chernobyl

Published 5:37 PM EDT, Tue April 26, 2016

Story highlights

30 years after Chernobyl, there are security threats to nuclear facilities around the globe, says Debra Decker

An organizational culture that addresses safety and security is critical to avoiding incidents, she says

Editor’s Note: Debra Decker is a senior adviser at the Stimson Center think tank and the co-author of two recent reports, “Nuclear Energy: Securing the Future — A Case for Voluntary Consensus Standards” and “The Quest for Nuclear Security Standards.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded, contaminating vast swaths of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia as well as several European countries.

Debra Decker
Courtesy Debra Decker
Debra Decker

Radiation deaths are not pretty, and dozens of people died from this catastrophe. More than 100,000 were evacuated and another 230,000 were later relocated. Poor reactor design and a bad safety culture in the Soviet system all contributed to the disaster.  

Today, concerns about nuclear plant safety are compounded by security threats to nuclear facilities around the globe. The 9-11 attackers had U.S. nuclear power plants on a preliminary target list. More recently, an insider sabotaged a Belgian nuclear plant and ISIS was found to be surveilling a Belgian nuclear security worker. Cybercriminals present a new threat. In 2014, hackers stole floorplans and information on systems and employees at South Korean nuclear facilities.

Such safety and security concerns have to be addressed as nuclear power expands internationally. Governments from China to India to much of Western Europe find that nuclear power, which doesn’t emit gases that contribute to global warming, is likely to be important to fulfilling future energy needs while addressing climate change. But how are we to protect ourselves from emerging security threats, if 30 years after Chernobyl the nuclear industry continues to stumble on critical safety issues?

After Chernobyl, the World Association of Nuclear Operators was established to foster better industry practices, including “safety culture.” Even earlier, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations had been established in the United States after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear incident. One of its essential principles is the critical importance of leadership responsibility for a healthy safety culture.  The importance of safety culture was well acknowledged and accepted within the industry that controls such dangerous materials. Yet, none of these principles or agreements prevented the Fukushima nuclear disaster just five years ago due to safety culture issues.

The March 2011 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan caused a massive tsunami, taking nearly 20,000 lives. It initiated the Fukushima nuclear incident, but it was the lack of  institutional safety culture that directly contributed to Fukushima being a catastrophe, according to the report of the National Diet of Japan Independent Investigation Commission. The commission called it “a ‘manmade’ disaster” with both organizational and regulatory failures. It need not have happened. 

A proactive attitude toward safety at Fukushima could have led to the plants’ back-up diesel generators being better protected and could have led to a faster overall response. A study of a neighboring Japanese power company’s plant showed it survived the earthquake and tsunami and pointed to the plant’s good safety culture. Somehow the lessons about organizational culture are not getting through to everyone – or simply not being implemented. 

 At Fukushima, like Chernobyl, the effects have been far reaching. About 88,000 people were evacuated and the economic impact has been huge. The effects on the nuclear industry have also been far reaching: Countries reassessed their nuclear plans, experts called for additional stress testing, and regulators and others responded with new requirements and recommendations for safety, including a recognition, again, of the importance of an effective safety culture.

Despite all this, the message is still not getting through. The director-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency William Magwood recently pointed out that a deficient safety culture, by operator or regulator, largely contributed to all three nuclear disasters – Fukushima, Chernobyl and  Three Mile Island – and called this the “last great remaining weak link internationally” for the nuclear industry.

If we cannot get safety culture right, despite three major incidents, how can we get security – and security culture – right?

 What we should know by now is that simply supporting a good safety culture may be necessary but is not sufficient. We need a new approach that goes beyond regulatory oversight and peer encouragement. The United States has it right to a large extent, with Institute of Nuclear Power Operations rating plants and the ratings being shared with the industry’s mutual insurer and also driving manager and employee benefits. Nuclear safety culture – one of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations’ evaluations – is in large part a byproduct of good leadership that values the right culture, one that informs decisions and daily operations, from ensuring proper training for staff to making sure personnel is sufficiently qualified to do the job at hand. Generally, better-rated plants perform more efficiently, too.

However, the world does not have this level of transparent mutual oversight in nuclear. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog, is not empowered to do this. And governments cannot dictate this. At the recent 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, heads of state revealed country “gift baskets” and action plans. These included some committing to help improve nuclear security and security culture in particular. Some plans, like that of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, rightly called for engagement with industry. These plans need to be leveraged so we do not continue to stovepipe concerns and efforts. Financiers and energy ministers at the upcoming Paris conference on nuclear energy financing should take heed.

A good organizational culture that addresses safety as well as security and other competing priorities is critical to avoiding and managing incidents – whether they are accidents or attacks. And a business case must be made to incentivize good practices. This can be done with voluntary standards in critical areas and with some levels of transparency for compliance with these standards. This involves all stakeholders – from governments to industry – working together.

 As we have seen in other areas and industries, a good business case can indeed drive adoption of good practices. And maybe then we can avoid the next Chernobyl.

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Debra Decker is a senior advisor at the Stimson Center think tank and the co-author of two recent reports, “Nuclear Energy: Securing the Future — A Case for Voluntary Consensus Standards” and “The Quest for Nuclear Security Standards.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.